Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Years ago at 7/15/19 2:33 PM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/15/19 2:33 PM

Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
There are so many different terms about states of consciousness and features of them and features of reality that can be accessed at certain stages and in certain states. I feel that I cannot sort out apples from oranges, and it confuses me. I’m referring to terms such as open awareness, direct awareness, awareness of awareness, natural state, nondualistic state, PCE, bhavanga, rigpa, luminosity, nonconceptuality, cittas, javanas, jhanas of different numbers and different depths and with or without form (the latter which are also referred to as realms and some other fancy terms that I have forgotten), pure land jhanas, custom made jhanas, vipassana jhanas...

I realize that part of the confusion is due to the fact that different traditions have different terms, and I don’t know enough about the different traditions to sort that out. Just describing the phenomenology doesn’t help that much either, since language is based on generalizations that are human-made and yet mean different things to different people. I mean, I think that I know the feeling of sensations being aware of themselves, but how do I know if that is really the feeling that others refer to? Is it even correct to call it a feeling? Is it a state of consciousness? Is it a feature that can be accessed in different states of consciousness?

I also wonder what terms are referring to the same states (as synonyms) and if there are states that partly overlap each other and states that absolutely contradict each other. And are there distinct features that remain the same even in contradictory states if there is enough clarity?

Is ”resting in open awareness” the same as resting in bhavanga? What is the relationship between that and formless realms?

I realize that all different states are empty, but I would like to be able to describe my experiences in ways that others can relate to. I also would like to be able to cultivate precision in moving between different states and stages some time in future, so I need to learn how they relate to each other. Is there some multilayered map of how different mind states relate to each other according to different traditions, and how these traditions map onto each other?

Bah, language is so tiresome!
Daniel M Ingram, modified 4 Years ago at 7/15/19 5:13 PM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/15/19 4:43 PM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 3275 Join Date: 4/20/09 Recent Posts
While it is true that learning to be a good phenomenologist is a real project that also may benefit from some intrinsic talent, it is also true that part of the problem is that the definitions of a lot of those terms were created by people who were not particularly good descriptive phenomenologists, though there are clear exceptions, as noted below.

Taking them one by one as they occurred:

Open awareness: a technique, not a state. It is just a style of focusing widely and non-specifically, in which nearly anything (except perhaps something involving a narrow focus, or at least intentionally) could arise.

Direct awareness: a description of something regarding "raw" sense data, or as raw as we have access to, that is. It could also involve anything, but specifically it tends to mean, for example, noticing the sensations in the fingers as being there, in the fingers, and the mental impression of them that typically occurs somewhere in that region or perhaps near the center of the head as just being those mental impressions rather than taking the mental impressions for the physical sensations of the fingers. This is just one of countless examples, as it doesn't imply a specific, just a quality where things directly represent themselves.

Awareness of awareness: a bit of a redundancy, or a pointing back towards some theoretical origin of consciousness, or a focus, or an attempt at a technique, or an experience of some sort of sense of "consciousness", or a meta-cognitive awareness, or possibly other meanings, depending on context. This one would clearly need to be appreciated in its tradition and meaning will depend on usage, and often gets vaguely used so its utility will depend greatly on its application.

Natural state: while used various ways, and clearly problematic, and clearly somewhat tradition dependent, at its best it points much as the Bahiya of the Bark Cloth Sutta, "In the seeing, just the seen. In the hearing, just the heard. In the felt, just the felt. In the cognized, just the cognized. In the thinking just the thought, etc." In this, things are simply where they are, happening naturally as they do, know where they are by themselves, naturally appreciating their own transience, unsolidified by misperception or habit, ungrasped by misperception or habit, etc. However, some will use it in other ways, and I consider every other usage a problem. Natural state could be used in the highest sense as a synonym of arahatship. However, the Mayahana being generally pretty phenomenologically weak as it is will often use it for many other states that contain some hint of a glimpse of a part of the full thing, even going as low as to say that Mind and Body, some jhanic state, or Equanimity are the Natural State or a glimps of the Natural State. In this, they are partly right, as those do contain parts of the puzzle, but at the same time they shortchange the real thing. Various people will relate to this problem various ways. Some relate to it skillfully, and take the partial glimpses as just those, and others will fixate on some limited state that isn't the complete thing as being the complete thing, but, in this, they err.

Nondualistic state: see Natural State, as the exact same discussion applies.

PCE: a term used various ways by various authors and traditions. If you mean PCE as defined in Actualism, then that refers to a very remarkable state, a state I don't recommend attempting to map to anything else EVER. Sorry for those who really like putting this all together in a neat package, buy I think it is its own thing that needs to be engaged with and defined on its own terms. The PCE defined by Actualism is truly a remarkable experience. It has various qualities, including a sense of sensate "perfection", as well as a preposterous visual sampling rate. When in a PCE, I can be watching a 60Hz television and see the frames, actually can't not see the frames, as the sense of pristine perfection is something you basically can't not see in a PCE. It is also emotionally very unusual, considered by Actualism the learning lab of its project. Some here believe the PCE to be "Buddhist crack" in the very bad sense of "crack", really great feeling, but really dangerous. I don't view it that way having been in a PCE for up to around 3 days at the longest. When in a PCE, ones ordinary emotional reactions generally seem like the foolish stupidity of an ignorant child. Aesthetics are markedly altered, as the wall next to a TV might seem equally as interesting or not as the TV it is next to, for example. There is a sense of generic beauty that applies to everything equally. Your favorite music seems no more nor less interesting than silence. PCEs can be attained to by attending to the sensuous beauty of experience and inclining to immediate perfection, but some will find it much easier than others, and having someone to point you in that "direction" helps, as with so many other things. PCEs have a delight to them which the Actualists will say is a flaw, a subtle corruption, but still as close as one can get to Actualism without attaining to it, they would add. PCEs are compelling. As Actualism is extremely controversial on the DhO, PCEs also are similarly extremely controversial, and discussions of them are at risk of serious flame wars and political badness. You will have to determine for yourself if you are interested in pursuing them further.

Bhavanga: defined as what the mind turns to when it has no object in the sense of being in deepest sleep or having nothing contacting the senses, also what the mind does between mind moments if nothing else is going on, so sort of a synonym for unconscouisness, but, again, used various ways by various people, so must be taken in context, but, if you really want to attempt to get at what that techinical term is meaning, see here. It is also sometimes conceptualized as some sort of factor that provides some quality of continuity to existence, a conceptualization that is extremely problematic and must not be taken as a true continuity of some continuous soul or simiilar entity. In what context are you finding it used? Essentally, and by defiinition, you can't be conscious of Bhavanga. It also must be carefully distinguished from Nibbana.

Rigpa: very much like Nondual State, or Natural State. Again, this is a term that gets used a lot, and various authors lend their various flavors to it and subtle or not so subtle variations in usage. It sometimes refers straightforwardly to experience without the distortion of ignorance, as in the Bahiya of the Bark Cloth Sutta, but sometimes it is unfortunately used to describe some sort of luminous all-ground, which I consider a serious problem, and sometimes used to refer to some exalted, basically mythical state of liberation beyond this ordinary sense world yet somehow of it, a usage that is just useless mind-fuckery, if you ask me.

Luminosity: variously used by various authors to describe states that, on inspection, seem to be either that phase of Equanimity that I call ñ11.j4.j6, meaning the still formed part of the Equanimity ñana where there is a strong sense of consciousness pervading but there is still form, which is a temporary state, to the experience that begins to show up for some around what I think of as "third path", meaning that, in ordinary life and just walking around, phenomena seem to contain their own "light" as it were, and not that they are more illuminated or glowing or anything like that (though in some stages people will feel that everything is glowing more, as can happen in both the A&P and Equanimity), it just means that phemonena are naturally aware where they are, again, as in the Bahiya of the Bark Cloty Sutta, where things siimply represent themselves. Luminosity can also sometimes refer to the state of Boundless Consciousness, the true formless realm, in which ordinary forms such as the body are not perceived, and instead there is just wide-open vastness that all seems present in some bright, conscious way. It can also refer to what I consider to be one of the standard Golden Chain traps that await beings of moderately high but incomplete levels of realization, that sense that there is a Luminous All-Ground, some stable space that seems to Know, a stable light of Awareness that is some True Self, that is some Ground of Being, some Buddha Nature that is undying, stable, always present, still, silent, unchanging. This is an illusion, but an extrmely tempting one for some, and I would guess that about half of the Mahayana sutra-writers got stuck there. It is a pretty good place to be stuck, as places to be stuck go, but it is still less than what is possible.

Non-conceptuality: Very much like Natural State, Direct Awareness, Nondual State, and Rigpa when used in that most useful, most accurate, and most straightforward sense, in which, rather than the mental impression or "consciousness" that follows each other sense impression is taken as the awareness of the sense impression that followed it, the sense impression and the mental impression are both taken to simply represent themselves as and where they occur very straightforwardly and literally.

Cittas: A term that really needs its qualifier word to make it make sense in any specific context, often used in the Abhidhamma in a hyper-technical ennumeration of various types of mind states or qualities of heart/mind or arisings of some aspect of experience, sometimes used in a microphenomenological sense, sometimes used in a more macrophenomenological sense. See here and here. Also, Access to Insight is pretty helpful, or at least about as helpful as one can get in this business.

Javanas: a type of citta that is reactive to a prevoius citta and where kamma is created, a type of "mind moment". This article is helpful.

Jhanas: while these have straightforward definitions in terms of their essential qualities (1st: applied and sustained attention (aiming and rubbing) with rapture and happness born of seclusion from the hindrances, 2nd: with the dropping of applied and sustained attention/aiming and rubbing there is rapture and happiness born of concentration, 3rd: with the dropping of rapture, there is subtle, cool bliss, equanimity, and mindfulness, 4th: with the dropping of subtle bliss there is equanimity with mindfulness considered perfected due to the equanimity thought it may not be as obvoius and with a neutral feeling tone, etc.), they can look radically different depending on how the mind is tuned, what is taken as object, what is intentionally excluded from consciousness, what level of depth the jhana is taken to, what is emphasized, and what is diminished. Learning to identify them is both an art and a science, as is are their subjhanic aspects and phases of development.

Formless realms/jhanas: truly, the body is gone. This is a key point. If the body is there, that's something else, something that may have formless aspects perhaps, but not a true formless realm. These are really more "realms", in that they are truly removed from this "realm". They are elsewhere, in another space, mentally created, if you will, not experiienced "here". The body may disappear in jhanas before the formless realms, even the first jhana, but it would still have that effortful first jhana quality to it, which the formless realms don't, being long after the dropping of applied and sustained effort/attention as they are. Distinguishing the four formless realms from the lower jhanas that are tuned away from ordinary form is not actually that hard, as the formless realms arise after the fourth jhana is attained, which is usually pretty obvious, and they are not particularly negotiable, being sort of "fixed packages" in the sense that they are always "the same", said in quotes to avoid some sense of fixity in the sense of permanence. Every time you attain to them, there they are, seemingly just like before. Boundless space is just as you would figure. Imagine you are on the deck of a spaceship with a vast panoramic window onto the vastness of interstellar space, then take away the stars, then take away the spaceship, then take away the body that is observing it. Boundless consciousness is just like that, vast, formless, clear, quiet, present, refined, etc. except that the whole thing has a sense of some light to it, but a light that is not reflecting on anything, just present to the boundless space in some way that is clearly different from simple Boundless space, yet also sort of like a recognition of something that was there but you just hadn't noticed it yet. Nothingness is what would happen if you then totally turned the lights out, such that there is just nothing. This is best recognized after the appropriate setup, that of the first two formless realms, and so, by going there again and again and getting a sense of it, one can then learn to differentiate it from other states that don't seem to involve much experience beyond the sense of nothing, which, it turns out, is a distinct experience which is exactly and straightforwardly that in a really literal way. Neither perception nor yet non-perception is best appreciate as what happens when the mind detunes from Nothingness, and one finds one's self in an experience that is essentially indescribable beyond weird terms such as its name. It is best understood by going through the setup in order, namely Boundless Space, Boundless Conscousness, Nothingness, and then NPNYNP. In thiis way, and through repetition, you learn the quality of each, and their distinct presentations become more obvous. This takes practice, and many will not be able to do this easily or at all. While claims of formless attainments are common, I believe the real thing is substantially less so.

Pure Land Jhanas™, a proprietary term claimed by Kenneth Folk, Inc. as his own property, originally sort of derives from the original description of the 31 Planes of Existence. You see, there five realms described in that table as 23-27 are Pure Abodes, but they have no other descriptions. The association occurred when an undefined set of practitioner(s), whose members will not be named to avoid toxic, narcissistic politics, noticed that, after leaving NPNYNP, they would sometimes soon thereafter find themselves in remarkable states that simply didn't fit the standard descripitions of the ordinary jhanas. These seemed to combine elements of various jhanas in combinations previously undescribed but in ways that were truly delightful, having a true sense of purity to them, and adding in other elements, like powerful gratitude, or cool delight but in some way that was different from lower jhanas and combined with much more pervasive and impressive elements, as well as occurring blatantly out of any ordinary sequence. It was then decided by KF, he says, to call these Pure Land Jhanas, corresponding them with the extremely sparse descriptions found in the list of the 31 realms, and presuming that only anagamis or arahats could access them. However, that is an extremely contentious point, and phenomenologically extremely problematic, owing to the fact of the custom/fusion jhanas...

Custom/fusion jhanas: As those with strong concentration, a bit of talent, and a spirit of exploration have noticed, at some point one can gain the ability to tune the mind in ways that simply defy the ordinary categorization of the typical four jhanas and add in other elements not mentioned in them. Pure Land Jhanas may very well fall into this category, and, as their original critieria are undefined, many believe they have attained to them, and some have used these as their primary criteria for various path attainments despite the know problems with doing this. These problems primarily include the remarkable ability to create jhanas that really are however one wishes them to be once one gets enough concentration. Notice I simply said "enough concentration", and not "enought concentration and insight," as it can be demonstrated that some who clearly don't have high levels of insight can yet, through that odd mix of training, inclination, and talent, get themselves into some extremely remarkable states just by learning to incline their mind that way.

Vipassana jhanas: refer to the fact that the Three Characteristics can be observed in various modes that clearly correlate with the standard jhanic descriptions and have those various classic jhanic factors present, thus creating experiences that clearly have both an insight and a more samatha feel to them. In fact, it is extremely hard to get into jhanic states that do not have any hint of the Three Characteristics. Also, one finds plenty of textual evidence that jhanas were states that could be investigated and broken down into individual qualities and moments. Thus, the term "vipassana jhanas", basically to distinguish them in terms of both experience and practice emphasis from those jhanas which by way of inclination and experience are a lot smoother, more seemingly stable, less evidencing the Three Characteristics. However, as some have noted, the stronger one's concentration gets, the harder it is to really ignore the moment-to-moment nature of experience. Also, even those doing "pure insight practices", dedicated to tearing down each moment ruthlessly, will often enter into territory where powerful jhanic factors are present, particularly in certain insight stages, such as Mind and Body (1st jhana), The A&P (2nd jhana), Dissolution (3rd jhana), and Equanimity (4th jhana). Also, those who, in a stage such as Review, who train well, will notice that it is really easy for some to do lateral work, turning each jhana into its closest ñana and back again, and even move in zig-zag patterns up and down this hypothetical ladder, such as from the 2nd vipassana jhana (A&P)  to a more smoothe 3rd samatha-esque jhana to a more vibratory/fluxy 4th vipassana jhana/Equanimity, etc. However, it should be noted that, in supramundane jhana, the "noble one" cannot truly ignore or not notice the Three Characteristics, unlike those pre-path, who can actually attain to jhanas that feel a lot more stable than those post-path.

In answer to the question about Bhavanga, it is clearly different from the four formless realms. In deep sleep, or when under general anesthesia and properly sedated, one is unconscious. There is no time, no space, no experience, no anything. One is just out. Boundless space is vastly different from this, a very present, impressive, vast space. Similarly, boundless consciousness is a vast, luminous, conscious space. Similarly, Nothingness is the sense of dedicated presence to the quality of Nothing, almost like tuning into the Platonic ideal of Nothing, but there is still a sense of the passage of time, and there is still definitely experience. In NPNYNP, there is still definitely that quality, which is a very hard quality to explain, but it is definitely different from deep sleep or unconsciosness both in setup, entrance, the thing itself, exit, and after-effects.

Hopefully, that will all be of some help.

Best wishes,

Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Years ago at 7/15/19 7:28 PM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/15/19 7:28 PM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
Wow, thankyou so much!

I’m starting to wonder if Michael Taft while being a great teacher in many ways is actually not as skilled as a phenomenologist. I think I will tentatively treat his descriptions more as inspiring poetry than as clearcut descriptions, perhaps especially now that he is doing a series of Mahayana inspired guided meditations. For instance, he talks about open awareness in a way that makes it sound like a state, one that is stripped from many or even ”all” layers of conceptualizations. Following one of those guided meditations, I once got into something that made me subjectively experience that time was no longer moving. It seemed to be somehow materialized and spatially organized, if that makes any sense. I don’t know how scripted I was by popularized descriptions of advanced Physics.

Okay, direct awareness definitely makes sense. That term I will use.

Awareness of awareness was Michael Taft again. I think he may have referred to direct awareness, but sometimes it seems like he is gliding between direct awareness and boundless consciousness when he talks. Maybe it’s just my own associations that are gliding, I don’t know.

Natural state is a concept I have seen in a number of different contexts and I found it very confusing as it seemed to refer to very different things. It probably did. It was a relief to have it acknowledged so candidly. I won’t bother with trying to understand it then, except for the Bahiya of the Bark Cloth Sutta. The latter I have thought of as the same thing as direct awareness. Is that correct, or am I mixing things up? Hm, as you mention the Bahiya thing with regard to luminosity too, I’m guessing that there is more to it than I can grasp now, but that I will hopefully grasp it later on.

Yeah, I have found the usage of the term nondualistic state equally confusing. Good to know that it actually is that vague.

As for PCE, I was confused because I have seen it used in ways that did not seem to match your description of that very specific state, as defined by Actualism, for instance by Culadasa. That explains it then. On the other hand, I think I have heard Shinzen Young describing that exact state without using the term. Is that reasonable?

I have seen bhavanga mentioned here on this forum, in various ways, most of which were apparently erroneous as they referred to something that was ellegedly experienced.

I’m so relieved that I don’t need to make sense of the term rigpa. I’ll happily let go of it.

How would the wide-open vastness of boundless consciousness manifest to someone who is not visually oriented? Is it possible at all to have a kinesthetic experience of it, or would that mean that there is a body component to it? I have had plenty of kinesthetic experiences that did not include the sense of having a body in any ordinary sense, but I’m guessing that they were formless versions of formed jhanas or something like that. Hopefully I will some day learn from experience how to distinguish between these different states. That is probably the only way to truly understand it. Still, I would very much appreciate - if possible - some kind of translation of the visual descriptions to something that is more relatable for me who primarily understand the world through touch. Would there be a total absence of any sense of touch? I know that I have experienced falling away of the body and of touch, but I don’t trust my former clarity enough to assess whether they were completely gone. It’s probably wisest to remain sceptical.

The more I learn about jhanas, the trickier it seems to be to distinguish between them, as there are so many layers of complexity to them. No need to be bored ever again, I guess. I think I have experienced fourth jhana, because it was so much clearer than I could ever have imagined anything to be. Crystal clear. Very crisp. Extremely neutral, and yet afterwards I think of it as preferable to anything else I have experienced. Extremely effortless, and yet I so rarely manage to get there (probably exactly because of that).

I have watched videos where Kenneth Folk and one of his students claim to progress through the jhanas including pure land jhanas, and I was actually wondering if the latter were really the same thing as you refer to as custom/fusion jhanas. Also, some of the specifics described were oddly similar to experiences that I had both shortly before my assumed stream entry and in what I believe was the review phase. Of course, language is very tricky, so maybe it was not similar at all. Anyway, it included subjective experiences of having a cord between some part of the brain and the ground, if I remember it correctly, sort of chaining it down. It involved the subjective experience of suddenly having access to a part of the brain that hadn’t previously been online, and it sort of lightened up. Furthermore, it involved the experience of having respectively the third eye and the crown chakra open up and let out a beam of light, not in a rapturous way (it sounds very A&P anyway, doesn’t it?), but as something very neutral, pure maybe. Apart from that specific part, I had trouble making sense of what made this purer than other jhanas. But then again, maybe what I had experienced just happened to sound alike without actually being it. In any case, I experienced it before I saw the videos, so it wasn’t scripted by them. I thought it was just weird quirks of my brain manifesting in meditation.

Once again, thankyou so much for these thorough explanations and for all the links! It was tremendously helpful.
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Years ago at 7/16/19 7:45 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/16/19 7:45 AM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö:
For instance, he talks about open awareness in a way that makes it sound like a state, one that is stripped from many or even ”all” layers of conceptualizations.

Or maye he just said ”infinite awareness” and ”open vastness” or something like that, and then I mixed it up. I think the autistic tendency to interpret things too literally may sometimes cause confusion for me as I don’t always distinguish between the usage of terminology and somebody’s spontanous subjective descriptions.
Jim Smith, modified 4 Years ago at 7/16/19 9:54 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/16/19 9:16 AM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö:
Bah, language is so tiresome!

I think you are right to be confused. I have heard and read many different definitions of the same terms. Or different terms used to describe the same experience. Or different opinions on whether a particular experience is advanced, very advanced, or nothing. 

And what is the use of knowing the right term if most of the people you are communicating with don't know what it means?

Sometimes I just try to explain what I experienced in a few words instead of using a technical term.

It's also difficult when you are trying to communicate with someone and you are not both native speakers of the same language. Theoretically tehchnical terms would help in that situation if everyone understood them to have the same meanings. But it doesn't seem to work out that way.
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Years ago at 7/16/19 11:11 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/16/19 11:11 AM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
Yeah, there seems to be a general confusion about terminology. I have let it go now. What I really would like to learn is distinguishing properly between the states themselves and mastering them. Thus I need to learn what landmarks to look for. That takes practice and adequate guidance.
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Years ago at 7/17/19 2:42 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/17/19 2:42 AM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
I have started to dig into the links now and was happy to find that they also adress questions I had but had not put into words, about intention.

I can’t seem to figure out whether Michael Taft is aiming at Bhavanga-citta or Boundless Consciousness in his current guided meditations. He seems to describe both, which doesn’t add up, or maybe I’m just misunderstanding it. In any case, I think I have had glimpses of the former while mistaken them for the last two formless realms until I learned more and realized that it must be something entirely different.

The process of cittas and javanas seems to be a technical explanation of what I have been describing as chains of suffering that I have seen lately (at least partly) and that have occasionally dissolved themselves as they became aware.
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 4 Years ago at 7/17/19 8:45 AM
Created 4 Years ago at 7/17/19 8:45 AM

RE: Confused by terminology re states of consciousness

Posts: 7134 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö:

I can’t seem to figure out whether Michael Taft is aiming at Bhavanga-citta or Boundless Consciousness in his current guided meditations. He seems to describe both, which doesn’t add up, or maybe I’m just misunderstanding it. In any case, I think I have had glimpses of the former while mistaken them for the last two formless realms until I learned more and realized that it must be something entirely different.

Or maybe he is aiming at the ”clear light” in Mahamudra?